Fade The Heat Excerpt


“First, you gotta find the perfect bottle,” said the Firebug, his voice a rasping whisper that hurt to listen to. “Too hard, and it won’t bust when it hits the floor. Too thin, and it explodes on impact with the window, splashing you with fuel mix and burning you to hell.”

The visitor leaning over his bed looked down into the noseless face, most of which was mercifully hidden by a thick compression garment. He didn’t have to worry that the poor bastard would see him staring because the Firebug’s eyelids had been seared off, too, and the burn unit nurses bandaged whatever had been left behind them. Probably something that looked like a couple of freaking chunks of charcoal anyway.

Suppressing a shudder, the visitor asked, “So once you’ve found this perfect bottle, what do you put in there, other than the gas?”

When the Firebug tried to answer, the resulting hiss sounded like sand blown across a windshield.

“Water?” the visitor asked. Without waiting for an answer, he grabbed a cup from the narrow bedside table and held it, though it made him want to puke to watch the man he’d idolized working the bent straw like a baby at a tit.

When he had finished, the Firebug said, “You want it to flare right up, but it don’t do any good if it just flashes and goes out. Works best if you make it sticky, so it won’t come off of stuff.”

Such as flesh and bone . . . For the first time, the visitor noticed the way the Firebug’s hands were bandaged, and it occurred that he must be missing fingers. Maybe all of them.

“And you gotta mix in something else, too,” the injured man said. “Somethin’ to keep things cooking for a while. Man can burn a tank that way. That’s how they did it in the big war.”

“What are you, the goddamn History Channel?” The visitor was itching to get the hell out of this place. It stank, for one thing, smelled like medicine and heavy duty cleaners overlaying an undisguisable whiff of human shit. “I just want the recipe, that’s all.”

“And I gotta have the details. A–all of them.” The voice broke like a wave. “What do – what else do I have to live for? You tell me what you’re gonna do, I’ll help you. Otherwise –”

“You don’t tell me, I’m gonna –”

“You’re gonna do what? Kill me? Go ahead, I’d welcome it. Just tell me how you’re gonna use the thing, for God’s sake. Let me hear the flames speak one more time. Let me smell the smoke. You know you can trust me. You know I’ll never say a word, and I’ll tell you how to make the best Molotov cocktail this city’s ever seen. Maybe the whole damned state of Texas.”

The visitor nodded, forgetting the Firebug’s blindness for the moment. “All right, then,” he said, moving around to block the closed door with a chair. “I can tell you this much, and I swear I’ll come back once it’s over and give you every detail.”

He heard the Firebug’s breathing quicken, wouldn’t be surprised if the pathetic son of a bitch was getting hard. Presuming his little mishap had left him anything to stiffen.

Swallowing back the thought, the visitor said, “I’m going to burn a man’s apartment. And then I’m going to do the man himself. And he’s a doctor, can you beat that? I guess I’m moving on up in this world.”


Five-year-old Jaime Perez had taken exception to his vaccination shot. So much so that Dr. Jack Montoya’s ears rang and his shin ached as he limped out of the exam room.

Gratefully, Jack closed the door on the boy’s howls and silently blessed the poor mother, who was struggling to console him with the roll of stickers Jack had left her.

On his way to his next patient, Jack peeked past the reception counter and into the waiting room. There, a pack of tiny, dark-haired children shredded outdated magazines while exhausted-looking women pretended not to notice. Old men hawked into folded handkerchiefs, and a hugely-pregnant woman was vomiting into a trashcan. Adding to the mayhem, the TV hanging near the water-stained ceiling blared a Spanish-language game show no one watched.

Four-thirty and the crowd hadn’t thinned a bit, despite the unseasonably cold October rain rattling against the skylights. Jack cursed the fellow doctor who’d walked out the day before, after he’d been held up at knifepoint in the parking lot at lunch. Jack knew he ought to be more sympathetic, but between the clinic’s low pay and the neighborhood of derelict old houses, boarded-up taquerias, and rough-and-tumble bars, it could be months before they landed a replacement – if the hospital board didn’t nix the idea in the latest round of budget cuts.

Hurrying to the next exam room, he grabbed the patient’s chart. Before he could read it, the new nurse, Carlota Sanchez, flagged him down.

“Dr. Montoya, it’s Mr. Winter — Darren Winter — on the line.” Carlota’s brown eyes were huge, and the hand covering the telephone receiver’s mouthpiece shook a little. Twenty-two and fresh from nursing school, she had been flashing Jack flirtatious smiles for weeks, which proved she hadn’t been in the profession long enough to absorb the male-physicians-are-scum attitude embraced by so many of her fellow nurses.

This afternoon, however, Carlota was obviously flustered by the media frenzy that had focused upon Jack. “Reporters have been calling here all day, and now he’s on the air, live. Will you talk to him?”

Jack hesitated, thinking maybe he should take it – and tell Houston talk radio’s most over-inflated ego where to shove his allegations. Or better yet, Jack could describe for the man’s listeners the gut-wrenching horror of watching a child die of a treatable disease. Let them hear the details of the parents’ pain, their suffering – and then ask them for suggestions on how to tell the next kid, “Sorry, it’s against the law for me to help you. Your family came from Mexico illegally.”

Jack would love hearing the man reporters were calling the next Schwarzenegger spin that to his would-be constituency. It probably wouldn’t slow the momentum of Winter’s listeners’ attempts to help him steal next month’s mayoral election with a highly-publicized, if unofficial, write-in campaign – but it would feel so good to make the pompous jerk squirm, if only for a moment.

“I’d better not,” Jack told Carlota, thinking of the hospital board instead. Since Winter had started his public tirades about the falsified medical records someone had leaked to him, Jack knew his job was on the line. Worse yet, it looked as if the board members might see the incident as the excuse they needed to shut down this chronically under-funded satellite clinic. And leave the kids that he’d been helping completely in the lurch.

Since he didn’t have the luxury of venting his frustration, he took the wiser course instead, the one that led to his next patient. But after closing the exam room door behind him and taking one look at the fair-skinned blonde who’d been waiting, he realized he’d been had. The shrewdness of her gaze all but shouted “Press.”

“If Darren Winter or one of the newspapers sent you, you can get the hell out of my office.” He might be talking tough, but inside Jack was praying that those papers she held wouldn’t be copies of the additional files he’d been praying would stay hidden.

Amusement glinted in her blue eyes, and atop the exam table, she crossed long, jean-clad legs. “Well, Montoya,” she said, stifling a dry, constricted cough. “I’m surprised you’re not in some fancy private practice, what with that brilliant bedside manner.”

A grin slanted across model-perfect features – not that he could see her prancing down anybody’s runway showing off the latest styles. Above the jeans, a faded blue t-shirt peeped out from beneath an unzipped and well-worn leather jacket. Her lace-up boots, too, looked as if she’d had them a long time. But no way did she live around here, not with that short, but feminine, precision haircut or the trio of tiny, silver rings that ran along each earlobe.

Still, there was something familiar about her, something that reminded him of …

Feeling like an idiot, he glanced down at her chart, something he normally did before entering an exam room. His gaze fastened on the name across the top.

“Reagan Hurley,” he read. Despite his troubles, he smiled at the rush of memory that followed. He hadn’t seen her in twenty years, since she and her mother left the city. “I was positive by now you’d have married some bean-counter in the ‘burbs, where the two of you would live with three-point-two blond kiddies and a nice big dog to chase around the yard.”

She laughed. “You’ve got the dog part right, but you’re off on everything else, right down to the bit where I’m a reporter or some sort of spy. What’s the deal with that?”

Jack shook his head and waved off the suspicion. “Bad assumption. Sorry. There’s been a little misunderstanding. People have been after me all week, and –” And I’m going to answer for it Monday morning. He pushed aside the thought, which had nagged at him since his supervisor’s terse call a few days earlier.

“Forget it,” she said before beginning to cough in earnest.

There was a choked quality to the sound Jack didn’t like. But before he could ask about it, she handed him the paper she’d been holding.

“I really came to get this signed,” she said. “It’s a release for work. Just a formality, you know? Some stupid hoop they make you jump through.”

Something in him unclenched when he saw the paper was what she claimed. Maybe nothing more would surface. Maybe whichever clinic employee had leaked the information only found the one discrepancy.

Or maybe today’s rash of reporter phone calls meant that someone, somewhere, already had the rest. Though needles of panic jabbed his stomach, he examined Reagan’s form.

In the blank beside “Employer”, he saw City of Houston. “Don’t you have a regular doctor? Surely, your insurance won’t cover this clin –”

“Don’t sweat it. I’ll be paying cash today.”

Alarm bells went off in his head, and resentment spiked through him at the thought of all the patients – real patients – out there waiting, while he and a single nurse practitioner struggled through an endless afternoon.

“So tell me about your pain,” he prompted, because that was what such visits invariably came to. A wrenched back, pinched nerves, and a request for drugs to soothe them. He’d seen it far too often, but for reasons he could not explain, he felt especially disappointed this time.

She shook her head. “I damned well didn’t drive over here on a day like this to worm some prescription out of you. I’m not in any pain, and I’m sure as hell no junkie.”

Her anger sent a meteor-bright image arcing across his memory: that day near the secluded bayou bend when a girl in pigtails had played David, whacking the meanest Goliath their neighborhood – this neighborhood – had to offer between the eyes with a smooth stone. With a lump rising on his forehead and a fist-sized rock clutched in his hand, Paulo Rodriguez and his bad-ass brothers might have killed her if Jack hadn’t intervened. Still, eight-year-old Reagan hadn’t backed down for a second.

Like him, would she carry that terrifying memory forever?book_december2005[1]

Because whether she’d forgotten it or not, he saw that some of that old spirit lingered, no matter what her current problems.

“Then why were you off work?” he asked as he pulled a stethoscope from the pocket of his white coat. “That cough?”

She shrugged. “It’s nothing but a cold. I get them – or allergies or something, especially days like this. But I was sent home because I took a little smoke.”

Over the heating system’s noisy, if ineffectual, efforts, Jack heard the rasping sound her breath made. After scanning the vitals recorded by the nurse – all normal – he glanced down at the questionnaire Reagan had filled out. It was the first one he’d seen written on the English side all day.

“You’re a firefighter,” he noted. “Like your father.”

As she nodded, pride and pleasure warmed her features – and took Jack’s breath away. He doubted she had any idea of the effect she had on men. Even on one doing his damnedest to remain professional.

“I had to pay a lot of dues first,” she said. “Fire science degree, then three years working one of the department’s ambulances as an EMT before I made it to a pumper like my dad rode. Only job I ever wanted.”

He didn’t doubt it one bit, after the way the department had rallied around the Hurleys after Reagan’s father died. Jack wondered for a moment how different his life would have been had his family known such support when his own father was murdered in the blazing scrublands of South Texas. Pushing aside the uncomfortable thought, he said, “Let me have a listen to those lungs.”

“You don’t really need to –” she began, then stopped once he frowned at her. With a sigh, she peeled off her jacket and lifted her t-shirt to make his task easier.

As a physician, it was his job to notice bodies. Hers was lean and well-formed. Beautiful, he thought, then shoved aside the unprofessional assessment. Athletic, he amended. Healthy-looking.

Yet, as he’d suspected, the sounds in her bronchial tubes didn’t measure up. Now he was certain she’d heard about him on the radio and decided he would be an easy mark.

Scowling, he moved his stethoscope aside. “How many doctors did you go to before you heard about me?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

He tried staring her down, but she didn’t flinch. He might have known.

“Like I said, I get colds,” Reagan added, tugging down her shirt’s hem. “And when I came across your name in the phone book, I thought I’d throw some business your way.”

That sounded so implausible, he chose to ignore it. “Do you wake up nights with trouble breathing?”

She re-crossed her legs. “You can save the screening questions. I’ll say no to all of them.”

“You’ll need a lung function test,” Jack told her. “Though I suspect you’ve taken one or two before. At least.”

She slid off the end of the table. “So you’re accusing me of what?”

“Wasting my time, for starters,” Jack shot back.

“I spent two hours cooling my heels in your waiting room, so don’t talk to me about wasting people’s time.”

“You’ve been diagnosed with asthma, right?” he demanded. “And after what you heard about my problems, you figured I’d be sympathetic. Because you need somebody understanding, someone who won’t ask too many questions.”

“What kind of bullshit –”

But he wasn’t finished. “I’m guessing your lungs are bad enough to jeopardize your job. But you don’t want to hear you’re finished as a firefighter, so you’re shopping for a doctor who’ll say otherwise.”

Pain flashed over her expression before it hardened into fury. “You’re completely wrong about me. Again.”

He had no idea what she meant, and he was not about to ask her. “Then take the test. But I’ll have to send you over to the county hospital to do it. Neighborhood’s gone downhill since you left here. We had a break-in last week. Someone made off with our spirometer.”

“Forget it. I’ve had my fill of waiting for one day, and your bedside manner must be an acquired taste.” She stuck her hand out. “If you’ll just give me back my form . . .”

He held onto it and looked her directly in those storm-blue eyes. Trying to see past his hurt to the patient who now stood before him, a woman facing fear as well as a disease. “If I’m right about you, there are treatment options,” he said, his voice gentler, “specialists to help manage your condition. I’d be happy to refer you to one of the leading pulmonologists in Hou –”

She grabbed her jacket before edging toward the door. “You always were too quick to judge, Montoya – or at least to judge those of us who check the wrong box on the Census form.”

It took a moment to sink in that this woman was accusing him – him – of prejudice. He’d heard such things before, from black addicts looking for their next fix and even from fellow Hispanics who’d told him he wasn’t Mexican enough. But hearing Reagan Hurley say it left him incapable of speech.

And convinced that, just as he did, she remembered every detail of that day near the bayou. Even those he wished he could forget.

Before he could recover, she stepped out of the room. Glancing back over her shoulder, she said, “Keep the damned form. I’ve got others.”

“A whole stack of them, I’ll bet,” Jack finally managed, but he had to say it to her back.

She was already disappearing from his life.


After a coughing jag triggered by the cold rain, Reagan looked up into the onrushing steel grill of one damned big green car.

“What the hell?” She threw herself against the spoiler of her beat-up blue Trans Am. Heart thudding against her chest, she called after the retreating sedan, “Watch where you’re going, jerk!”

Its dented hulk squealed around the corner before it disappeared, giving her only a fleeting glimpse of a guy with a black stocking cap pulled down around his ears. She didn’t think to get the license plate until the car was gone.

On shaking legs, she climbed into the Trans Am, brushed the rain from her face, and cranked the protesting engine until it finally caught. As much as she wanted to tear off to get the moron’s plates, her old car refused to cooperate, sputtering and dying no fewer than three times before she finally coaxed it from the parking lot.

Let him go, she told herself. Chasing him’s not worth the trouble anyway. The cops, she knew, would pay little heed to anything she told them, since the driver hadn’t struck her. Besides, she had too much at stake to spend whatever was left of the day filling out a report that would go nowhere.

“Time to find another doctor,” she breathed, her words sounding strange and shaky, as if she’d flung them into a spinning fan. She pulled into an empty spot in front of a long-closed gas station. After glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she removed an inhaler from her pocket.

It took three puffs to get her breath back, puffs she’d sworn to herself this morning she didn’t really need.

As she waited for the elephant to climb off of her chest, she recalled Captain Rozinski – the same captain her dad had worked for – saying, “I’ve known you for a lot of years now, kept an eye on you while you grew up. I’m saying this as your friend, not just your captain. Don’t keep fighting for a job you can’t do.”

Her eyelids burned, and she swallowed past a lump of pain.

“He’s right,” she said aloud, but the words faded to irrelevance against the images leaping through her brain. She saw herself scrambling onto the ladder truck, still pulling on her gear while lights flashed and the siren wound up; heard fire roaring, breaking above her head as flame flashed over. She soared with the high of hauling in a length of hose, blasting that inverted sea, and smothering the fatal orange waves. But it was so much more than an adrenalin addiction. It was the floodtide of relief she’d felt when an old woman she’d dragged clear of smoke coughed and breathed and lived to hear her grandchildren weeping their relief; the way it felt walking into the station at shift change and knowing she belonged. And it was the sense of connection to the father who had come before her, to Patrick Hurley, the man who had known things as she did. To sever that link, to allow it to ebb away with time, would be like losing him again.

Reagan’s fingers clutched the wheel so hard they ached. It can’t be finished. I can’t.

“You damned sure are if you give up,” she told herself, then flipped through the list of family doctors she’d left lying on the seat. Thirty seconds later, she found a listing for an office located off the next exit down the freeway.

he asked herself why not? But a quick glance at the time gave the reason. It was already 5:06 on Friday. She’d never find a physician in the office now.

Anger blasted past self-pity: anger at the doctors, with their banker’s hours and their surreptitious glances at expensive watches as they delivered diagnoses guaranteed to trash a patient’s life. And anger at Jack Montoya, who was supposed to be some sort of soft touch but had turned into one of their kind just the same, even if he wore a cheap digital instead.

But the fury that burned hottest was directed at herself, for allowing weakness to snatch away her future . . . and her last connection to a job that had become her life.

Using the back of her leather jacket’s sleeve, she wiped away the single tear that had betrayed her. Defeated, she decided to drive home, at least for the time being. But as if it sensed the opportunity to make a bad day worse, the Trans Am stalled again.

She swore anew, hating the thought of taking it back to the shop, where her mechanic would joke that she was sending his three kids through college with the Blue Beast, as he called it. He’d advised her several times to put the old Pontiac out of its misery – or, more precisely, out of hers. But she’d had the car since high school, and Reagan got attached to things.

Besides, she didn’t have the money to splurge on a new car – not after she’d used every penny she could scrape together for a down payment on her house, a bungalow in Houston’s Heights neighborhood around the corner from a place her grandparents once owned. At the thought of her bank account balances, she popped the dashboard hard enough to get the wipers slapping. The blow also started up the radio. Unfortunately, the tuner was stuck on the AM station carrying Darren Winter’s drive-time show. Though she ought to know better – he usually said something infuriating every eight seconds or so – she turned it up to hear him over the defroster, which was blowing cold air against the steamed-up windshield.

“If we want our borders to mean anything and our economy preserved,” an overconfident male voice urged listeners in major-market cities nationwide, “we have to derail the border runners’ gravy train. No access to employment. No education for their kids. And for God’s sake, no free healthcare when they come down with the sniffles.”

She rubbed at her still-clouded windshield and wished she could funnel Winter’s hot air through her defroster. Even though he wasn’t an official candidate – apparently, political commentators weren’t allowed to keep their jobs if they ran for office – it scared the hell out of Reagan to imagine his listeners succeeding in getting him elected mayor. She only prayed that once he got control of the city’s multi-billion-dollar budget, he wouldn’t do anything alarming with the fire department’s share.

“Like with this Dr. Jack Montoya I’ve been telling you about,” he began, just as Reagan had been about to cut him off. “Or I should say Joaquín Montoya, the son of a man drowned trying to illegally cross the Rio Grande. No need to guess in which direction this doc’s sympathies are skewed.”

“Leave his father out of this, you idiot,” Reagan growled. “Or at least get your facts straight.”

She’d heard around the old neighborhood that Antonio Montoya had been murdered by coyotes on his way to visit his widowed mother in Mexico. For years, Reagan had carried an image of a man savaged by a pack of animals, but as she grew older, she’d learned coyote was a name given to criminals who smuggled illegals across the borders. Vicious sons of bitches, they often led their charges to the desert, where they killed them for whatever money and valuables they carried.

“But the fact is,” Winter continued, his outrage mounting with each word, “Dr. Montoya of the East End Clinic doesn’t have the luxury of setting policy – or ignoring state law, for that matter. Not when he’s working for us, the taxpayers.”

Reagan had heard all this before, including the accusation that Jack had falsified a diagnosis so he could legally treat the child of undocumented workers. For asthma, of all things.

Not that it had made him one bit more sympathetic to Reagan’s cause. Sympathetic, nothing – he’d been rude as hell. And to think, she’d remembered the guy as a nice kid, the kind of boy who could inspire a younger girl to go squirmy in the stomach and imagine all sorts of stupid things. It just went to show that it didn’t take a radio show platform or political ambition to make a jerk of someone; apparently, having a handsome face and an M.D. tacked onto your name could effect the same result.

The loudmouth’s voice grew in volume, as if the mix of ego and indignation had pumped up the wattage on her speakers. “And I think it’s high time this sort of bleeding-heart liberal got the message. Since he won’t respond to mine, I’d like to put you, my Winter Warriors, into action. I’m not telling anyone what to do, of course, but if several concerned citizens were to, say, visit www-dot-America-for-Americans-dot-com on the Internet, they might find personal contact information for a certain physician who has been – shall we say – ‘outted’ by the fine webmaster, Ernest Rankin, whom many of you know from his frequent guest appearances. To remind Dr. Montoya he is working for you, the taxpayer, and not just any Jose who can swim a river, why not send him a personal message that we’re onto him? Again, that web address is . . .”

What was that reckless idiot suggesting? Reagan sucked in a startled breath, then exploded in another fit of coughing so hard her eyes teared.

By the time the sound subsided, her speakers bleated the cheesy theme music that let her know the Darren Winter show had just returned from its commercial break. Hammering the dashboard to turn off the radio, she shifted the car through its gears and headed toward her house, where Frank Lee, at least, would wag his tail to see her. Her warm and dry, brick kitchen would be waiting, and even in this weather, her windowsill herb garden would provide enough basil and oregano to throw together a kick-ass pasta dish.

If she could force herself to swallow it. Though she’d had nothing but a chalky-tasting energy bar since breakfast, the thought of cooking – and worse yet, eating – left her nauseated.

She tried to convince herself things could be worse. Since her friend, rookie firefighter Beau LaRouche, was working, she could at least enjoy an evening free of his non-stop boasting about his paintball prowess or his ruminations about the high school both of them had attended years before. Besides, come Monday, she still had a couple hundred other doctors she could hit up for a signature. And unlike Jack Montoya, at least she wasn’t going home to an answering machine that would be shorting out under the strain of irate messages from half the country, thanks to Winter and America-for-Americans-dot-com.

But when she ran inside from her detached garage and scooped up the ringing phone, the voice on the other end blew away whatever smugness she’d managed to scrape together.

“Hurley, hoped I’d catch you home.” Captain Joe Rozinski’s voice hadn’t lost that stiff, official manner he’d adopted since she’d transferred to his station. If anything, he sounded more distant than ever.

As Reagan fended off the white greyhound’s slobbery kisses, she wished, not for the first time, that she could have back the old captain, the one who had never forgotten her at Christmas or her birthdays, who had become a father to her since the horrible day he’d watched her own dad die. But hearing the captain call her “Hurley” reminded Reagan those days were gone forever – banished by far more than fear that the rest of the crew would accuse him of favoritism.

“I just had to pick up a few groceries,” she said quickly. Technically, while off sick, a firefighter was required to call the captain for permission to leave home. She’d often enough heard Rozinski complain that he had better things to do than play hall monitor to sick firefighters, but Reagan wondered if, in light of their recent disagreement, he would crack down on her today.

“So you weren’t at the doctor’s, hunting up a signature?”

“Uh, no. I already got that taken care of,” she lied, reasoning that by Thursday, when her crew returned for its next twenty-four-hour shift, she would have the issue covered.

“Really? Then you won’t mind dropping by the station with it this evening,” he suggested.

Cursing herself, Reagan wracked her brain for a suitable excuse. “I would,” she told him, her heart doing a quickstep in her chest, “but I had to take my car in to the shop. I accidentally left the form inside. And besides, I don’t have a ride right now.”

“So how’d you get your groceries?”

Suddenly sweating, she slipped off her jacket. He knew damned well she was lying. The question was, which of them would blink first?book_december2005[1]

“Peaches took me after we dropped off the car,” Reagan said, hoping the mention of her neighbor’s name would convince Rozinski to drop the subject. Though the captain had witnessed scores of gory accidents and gruesome deaths during his thirty-two years in the department, he lost all power of speech when it came to Reagan’s fun-loving neighbor.

Reagan supposed she should have warned the guys on her shift that despite her traffic-stopping curves, strawberry-blond bouffant, and world-class flirting skills, Peaches had been born James Paul Tarleton of Amarillo. But only days before her neighbor stopped by the station, Reagan’s co-workers had amused themselves on a frigid February night by encasing her Trans Am in ice, a mission they’d accomplished by repeatedly sneaking outdoors and misting it with a fire hose. They’d had a good laugh over the gag, but watching them make fools of themselves with Peaches had been worth every minute Reagan spent chipping and thawing her way into the car.

Despite her situation, the memory of their horrified reactions to the truth made Reagan grin.

“If you want,” she added, “I’ll give you Peaches’ number. She’ll be happy to confirm it, if she’s not out shooting pictures.” She waited, praying he would pass on the chance to catch Reagan in the lie against the certainty of the razzing he would take once it got out that he had asked for Peaches’ number.

“I’m working a debit day on Monday,” Rozinski growled, referring to the extra shift each firefighter worked every three-and-a-half weeks. “Meet me here at the station at 0630 – with the form and no excuses. Either that or I’ll assume you’re at the transfer office putting in for an ambulance position.”

He wanted her to return to her old station, where she would spend the better part of her career ferrying headaches, head colds, and head cases to emergency rooms because the patients lacked the insurance – or the good sense – to visit their own doctors. He’d been after her for months about it, since it became apparent that her “colds” were more than that. And last week, when she had coughed so hard she’d been unable to climb a smoke-charged stairwell with her usual seventy pounds of gear, he had finally shouted at her, “Go home, Hurley. Go home ’til you can do the job, or damn it, don’t come back.”

Stung by the demand that she transfer, Reagan lashed out like a wounded animal. “I joined this department to fight fires, like my dad. I’ve worked for years to get into suppression. I can handle it.”

He struck back with the most devastating weapon imaginable. “Your father would never try to hold on like this, wouldn’t respect it either. You’re not just dragging down yourself here. You’re dragging down the crew. You have to stop this, Reagan, for your own good. You have to understand it’s over. You’re useless to us this way.”

She wanted to shout that she would damned well show him who could do the job. Who was it who’d been known from the start for matching male rookies axe-stroke for axe-stroke — despite her slender, five-six frame — and fighting interior fires with a will? And who was it who’d represented the station in the women’s boxing division of the annual clash with the cops the past two years? She wasn’t finished, not by a long shot.

“If you don’t get this problem of yours under control and you refuse to transfer, I’m going to report you as unfit for duty,” Rozinski told her. “You and I both know you’ll lose your job entirely if it comes to that.”

Before she could protest, she heard an alarm go off at the station. She recognized the series of tones even before Rozinski said, “That’s for us. I’ve got a run.”

He hung up, leaving her to imagine the crew – her­ crew – rushing to pull their gear on, climbing on the apparatus . . . and driving off to do the job without her.

Had she even left a space when she had gone? Or had they already filled it, with someone whole and strong.

As she set down the receiver, Frank bounded over to the closet where she kept his leash and barked to let her know he’d had enough of waiting. Though she hated going back out into the weather, Reagan responded on autopilot, grabbing an old Astros cap, then hooking up the dog and exiting the front door to take him on his evening walk. She’d better cut it short, she realized as the rain rolled off the cap’s brim. Though she had just used her inhaler, she could feel her damned lungs twitching with the insult of the cold, damp air. But her feet weighed her down like anchors as the captain’s words replayed in her head a dozen times.

As she fought the asthma’s anaconda grip, she thought of her battle against Rozinski, her illness, and the medical community in general. And how, at 0630 Monday morning, the whole damned mess would come to a head.

She could cave in now or go down swinging, but Reagan Hurley was looking for an Option C … some passage through this firestorm that would help her fade the heat.

Copyright 2005, all rights reserved.

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